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America’s elites must come to the aid of their country

October 22, 2001

During the go-go ’90s, anybody who was anybody went into finance, entertainment, media or law. Those fields are bloated with talent. We will never run out of people eager to amuse us or to help us sue our neighbors. Other jobs, including just about everything in the public sector, were considered to be for those lower down the food chain.Now we must alter those priorities. We need our best young people to enter the fields that protect us from the threat of terrorism. Those fields are the ones looked on with indifference, if not disdain, by our chattering and scribbling classes: public service and national security, including the FBI, the CIA and the military.

Change is coming. The president of Harvard said the other day that a career in the military is a “noble” calling. Stop the presses. He said this because his university’s tradition of looking down its nose at the armed forces is under mild attack from alumni. Some 900 Harvard graduates, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, want the university to allow the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps back on campus.

Like many elite universities, Harvard threw the ROTC off campus during the turmoil over Vietnam. Students can join the ROTC, but they have to trek over to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to train. A crazed student group advocating the violent overthrow of the government would probably command space on campus, but the ROTC is different. It just wouldn’t be right to have the grass of Harvard yard defiled by the military boot. At Yale the trek is even longer and thus presumably more humiliating. To fulfill ROTC requirements, a student has to make a 150-mile round trip to the University of Connecticut.

The problem is obvious: On a great many campuses it is still 1969 and a generalized contempt for the armed forces is still fashionable.

During World War II, Americans of all classes and backgrounds, including Jack Kennedy and George Bush the First, rushed to sign up. The day after Pearl Harbor, according to the late columnist Rowland Evans, the line of Yale students waiting to enlist stretched around the block. But the elites sat out Korea and Vietnam. Columnist Jim Pinkerton reports that Princeton lost 353 men in World War II but just 24 in Vietnam. This tradition continues: Princeton’s Army ROTC graduated a grand total of two people last May. The elites think of the military as a source of regimentation and armed oppression. They don’t serve, and usually they don’t even know anyone who does.

A similar pattern holds at the CIA. The agency was created after World War II almost wholly by elites who felt the strong pull of patriotism and national service. Most of the network that founded the agency came from Yale. The elites of the next generation felt differently. In recent years, the CIA has recruited heavily among top collegians, but has had much more success at Big Ten and Big 12 schools than at places like Harvard, Yale or Stanford.

Even before the end of the Cold War, the elites came to see the CIA as a grubby cloak-and-dagger operation unworthy of a high-minded nation. And though they were reluctant to work for the CIA, they didn’t leave it alone, either. One result of their meddling was that the CIA was effectively banned from recruiting unsavory characters to penetrate terrorist cells. That rule has been repealed. The penetration no longer has to be accomplished solely by choirboys, but we still don’t know how much damage the old ban inflicted.

Another result of elite thinking is that the agency, like the rest of government, became a playground for race-and-gender social engineering. A CIA official recently complained to The New Yorker magazine that the agency was too caught up in making “diversity quilts.”

The distancing of the elites from the people who protect us shows up in a lot of odd ways. Look at all the journalism about the 300 firemen and policemen who lost their lives trying to save others at the World Trade Center. The praise was sincere, but much of it seemed drenched in astonishment, as if it had never occurred to the writers that these men might be worthy of great respect for what they do, that maybe they aren’t just a collection of Archie Bunkers who can’t seem to get jobs in major corporations.

America does not like to think of itself in terms of social classes, but there are elites, and these elites sometime seem to be holding themselves aloof from the work of defending the nation at time of great peril. The first step should be to shed the old Vietnam-era hostility toward the armed forces and security personnel in general. The next step is to respond to the call.

There are some good signs. A CIA spokesman said the agency was getting 500 to 600 resumes a week from college students around the country before the Sept. 11 attacks, and is now getting 10 times that number. At some colleges, there were even long lines waiting to see CIA recruiters. It’s a welcome echo of the line of enlistees from Yale on Dec. 8, 1941.

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